Last summer, Leesburg's Ryan Cambetes was on his annual family vacation in Greece, fresh off having earned a degree in computer science from James Madison University, when he wrote the song that would change his life.
A friend in the U.S. sent Cambetes — who for the last three years has produced original music under the stage name Ryan Cam — an electronic beat, and the young songster instantly saw its potential to become something great. After waiting for his family to clear out of their vacation home for the afternoon, he ducked into his grandmother's closet and recorded the vocals for what would eventually become "Staying Over," an optimistic look at long-distance love.
"It was really just inspired by a relationship that I had had prior to going to Greece, during my senior year," Cambetes told the Times-Mirror. "The girl was moving out to California, and I was going to Greece, so we were headed in complete opposite directions, but instead of making a song like, 'Oh, I'm so sad, this didn't work out, whatever,' it's more of a song like, 'Hey, this doesn't at all make sense, but I'd still be down to try and make it work.' So it was a hopeful song."
Music was one of Cambetes' first loves. His mother, who directed musicals, introduced him to theatre and some of his favorite bands when he was a toddler. He said he started singing "pretty much as soon as I could talk," but he didn't begin playing instruments until his 10th-grade year at Tuscarora High School.
"I started to learn how to play piano and started coming up with original chord progressions," he said. "I never put a full song together by myself until years later, when I was a sophomore in college."
Cambetes ran a freelance videography company while studying at JMU, which sparked his interest in music production and introduced him to various audio-creation softwares. He eventually set up a SoundCloud account, through which he has since shared more than 30 tracks and released multiple extended plays. His tunes have also found great success on Spotify, where his song "Time Back" has racked up more than a half-million plays.
After earning his degree and heading to Greece for the summer, Cambetes knew a 9-to-5 office job wouldn't be for him — that any rigidly structured form of work would do a number on his productivity and creative process. "I feel like that kind of clogs my head or makes things foggy, and when I create I definitely need to be in a good mental space," he said.
While contemplating what his next long-term pursuit would be, he decided to take up a side-career as a model and signed with Wilhelmina Models in New York. He moved to the Big Apple in February, but a mere week after picking up the keys to his new place, Cambetes was tapped to appear on "Songland," an NBC reality competition in which songwriters pitch their original tunes in hopes of having one recorded by a high-profile guest artist.
In Cambetes' case, that artist was Usher.
Though having originally penned "Staying Over" to perform himself, Cambetes pitched it to Usher and a panel of successful producers on the show's second-season finale, which aired Monday night. He noted how common it is for singer-songwriters to record certain songs themselves while handing others over to artists who may be able to take their music to higher levels of success, citing hip-hop and R&B hitmaker PARTYNEXTDOOR as one of his key inspirations.
"He has his own artist career, but then he's also writing work for Rihanna. He's writing these massive hits for Drake and for all these artists. He decides, 'This is a better song for this artist.' So if I write a song that has more opportunity with a different artist, I'm definitely going to pass that on, because that's a great opportunity for me," Cambetes said.
Still, whether one of his compositions ends up released under his name or another singer's, Cambetes sees the songwriting and performance aspects of his work as inextricable from one another.
"At the end of the day, it's just me writing the music, whether I'm going to be releasing it or someone else is," he said. "At least personally, I feel like that's the best way for me to think about it, because if I start thinking about it in categories — like, 'OK, I'm going to write today for somebody else' — I think that it would just be too much for me to think about, and I just need to put all of that energy into the music, into what I'm creating."
After performing a snippet of "Staying Over" for the "Songland" panelists, Cambetes received a number of recommendations for how to make the tune more accessible and memorable. With the help of Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter Ester Dean, who has worked with such industry titans as Beyoncé, Pitbull and Selena Gomez, he reworked and reproduced the song, even giving it a new title: "California."
"This song feels relevant. It feels like it's on the radio right now, and it feels super cool," Usher said after hearing the polished version of the song. Hours after the show aired, Usher's cut of "California," featuring guest work by rapper Tyga, was released on Spotify and YouTube, having earned more than 50,000 views on the latter.
Given the show was recorded four months ago, Cambetes had to exercise considerable restraint in whom he gave the news of his victory.
"It was crazy, because I had to not say anything to the people around me when I came back [home]," he said. "I got back to the hotel room after, and I was like, 'I can't call anybody.' I was kind of confused as to what to do."
Though one might see Cambetes' music career — only three years young — as an uncannily quick trip to success, he sees his "Songland" victory and the continued success that will almost inevitably follow as the fruit of countless hours of hard, behind-the-scenes work.
"Right now, obviously, things feel very fast. It feels like all this kind of came out of nowhere, but if I think about the times things were not going my way, then it kind of averages out and makes a little more sense," he said. "There's a lot of hours that I've put in just by myself in my bedroom that I think are now showing in this singular moment."
Hopefully this moment is one that will stretch far into the future for Cambetes, who plans to continue writing songs, releasing some as Ryan Cam and giving others away to artists who will be able to broaden their listenership.
"I feel like I can always write another song, but I can't always generate another opportunity like that, so I feel like the best thing to do is basically just write music that I personally like and I would release, but then if an opportunity comes about, or if I get in a room and am tasked with writing for somebody else … it's a song-by-song thing, I guess," he said.
For now, he's focusing his energy on releasing his next solo project, with a new single scheduled to drop June 23.
"I think it's going to be a big step for me and the start of something great," Cambetes said. "One of my biggest takeaways from this entire experience has been to just believe in yourself, in your feelings and what you think is possible, because if you don't personally believe it then no one else can see it. Anything is possible, for real. This experience only validated those thoughts."